I have always been fascinated by stories: by how we form them, how we share them, who’s telling them. When I discovered InsightShare, I was relieved beyond measure to discover a group of people who’d been working for many years with story telling in a way that was honest, transparent, empowering and inclusive: instead of telling someone’s story for them, support them to tell it themselves. This delightful discovery resulted in a group of farmers, activists and creatives coming together for an introduction to Participatory Video (PV) workshop in Muizenberg last year. The workshop was organised as a collaboration between InsightShare, Neville Meyer (a veteran of the PV methodology) and Amava Oluntu (a diverse collective of people interested in the mechanism of social change).
The participants cut across gender, ethnic and generational boundaries, coming together to explore common ground from Gugulethu, Muizenberg, Howick, Mandalay, Khayelitsha, the Eastern Cape and Johannesburg.
Along the way we stumbled over the predictable pitfalls of wanting to make a film about ‘those people over there’, that story that is external to our own context. But we soon realised that the space we were sharing was demanding something more from us.
So we dumped the ideas we had started developing and went back to the drawing board. For two days we struggled to figure out what we wanted to talk about, but then something appeared that got us all excited: the story within us was actually the story of the process that we were already knee-deep in. So, with direction, we started to go deeper and be real with each other. At this point we did not know if we were going to make a film, but that did not really matter. The quality of our conversation was enough to feed some inner desire for truth and healing.
Just acknowledging that we were a group of people who occupy different ‘sides of the railway line’, a vivid marker of the spatial apartheid that continues to persist in Cape Town, was a step towards a more authentic story. Whether with a river, a railway or a road, South Africa has been designed to maintain the vast inequality of access and resources fostered under apartheid, the foundations of which were laid by the British in the early 1900s with the Land Act.
Vuyani Qamata, one of the participants said, ‘this is one element of our past that will not be easily wiped out’. One of the consequences of these divisions is that the lives of those living in ‘townships’ remain hidden from their wealthier, predominantly white, counterparts. But the lives of those on the wealthier side of the railway are painfully obvious to those who travel daily across these boundaries to work in the affluent suburbs and wealth generating business centers.
The reality is that neither feels comfortable on the other side of the railway. The past is carried forward to the present due to a lack of reconciliation or economic liberation. We are seeing deepening divisions, greater exclusion, diminishing respect and rising hatred. This breeds further marginalisation and bitterness with the emergence of crime, moral decay and violence that only seeds further fear and fragmentation.
We all brought different pieces of history and the present into the room. As we shared our experiences, we were heated and uncomfortable, and it was this very honesty that enabled us to connect deeply and tell a story that was true to each one of us present.
During the ten-day process we stumbled across ‘fermentation’ as a metaphor for what was slowly brewing in the space and time we shared together. So we spun our story around the process of making amaRhewu, a fermented drink made from water and maize, traditionally made together and always served when a traveller arrived.
At our first community screening at a school in Gugulethu, this analogy communicated across language divides and evoked memories of times when our habits were much healthier. It reminded us how far off track we have gone. It evoked the desire for action and doing. It indicated how intrinsically all of our issues are tied up with land and land ownership. We got into heated debates around words and the meaning of words. We had discussions about how important words are, what they arouse in people and the importance of these conversations so that we don’t forget our languages. We acknowledged how much diversity there is within the Xhosa language. We acknowledged the importance of using the right word to describe exactly what we mean. It also showed how hungry we all were for spaces where we could speak and be heard, and we left with the promise to each other to carry on these conversations.
The real beauty that came out of the PV process, was what happened within the group. A connection was made, and a relationship developed that was meaningful, lasting, contagious and crossed divides. What brewed was just the beginning. This group continues to meet to this day, seeking new ways to create bridges between the divided architectures of our past and build new narratives for our shared future.
By Theresa Wigley and Claire Rousell
Theresa Wigley is fascinated by stories in all their forms and passionate about exploring platforms that enable lesser heard voices to be heard. She works together with a group of individuals and organisations at Amava Oluntu creating learning experiences that bridge divides. Watch the video created in South Africa here.